George flipped on the television. The cathode ray tube set hummed and the picture came into focus.
“The coronavirus has spread to every major city in the United States. Governor Huard issued a state of emergency. Lockdowns go into effect at midnight tonight. If you need to go to a store you must wear a mask—“
George stared at the screen in a mixture of horror and disbelief. His cheek twitched as he watched; a tic he acquired a decade earlier. His doctor said it was from nerves. That was a ridiculous diagnosis. George didn't struggle with nerves.
He turned the volume down and walked into the kitchen. The spartan kitchen had all he needed. Fridge, oven, and microwave. He clicked the stove on and placed the griddle in its usual spot. Turning to the pantry he pulled out a container of flour. Then he reached into the fridge for several eggs and milk.
He mixed the eggs, flour, and milk. Then beat them into a batter. He turned on the kitchen sink, ran his hand under for a second, then dropped a bead of water on the skillet. The water steamed into the air. He poured two dots of batter onto the skillet, which widened into pancake form.
George looked into the living room. The news report showed graphs with lines reaching up—videos of crowded hospitals. Images of ventilators with a graphic, "Short supply." A woman with a mask appeared on the screen. She dabbed her eyes with a tissue.
George put his spatula on the counter and walked back into the living room. He turned the volume up.
The woman on the screen spoke into a microphone. “I’m terrified of what comes next. We don’t know how it spreads. Our guidelines state: wash your hands, wear a mask, and don't leave the house. Only go to stores when necessary.”
George scratched his long wiry beard. His finger caught in a greasy knot. He wrenched his finger out and sat down in a worn leather recliner. The news played on.
A reporter spoke to an important-looking figure. “So how long are lockdowns going to last? And is this as serious as others claim?”
The man fiddled with his mask. “W are assessing the situation and enforcing strict guidelines to slow the spread. However, everyone needs to understand that this is not the typical flu. Be careful, be safe, and stay in your homes.”
George reached for the television dial. He switched to another channel. An early morning talk show logo appeared. The camera focused on a well-dressed man and two women.
“So this is the last show we are going to do in the studio,” he said. “Carla, how do you feel about this decision? Do you think everyone is overreacting to all this?”
Carla sat up in her chair and cleared her throat, “Henry, look. Here's the deal. If everyone wasn’t so dirty and gross. We wouldn’t be in this situation! People! Shower more often. Stop coughing on everything. And for crying out loud, after you pee… WASH. YOUR. HANDS.” Carla emphasized each word by clapping her hands.
The audience giggled. The camera panned out to a packed studio.
“What do you think Jean?” Henry asked.
Jean is the only one with a mask on. She’s also not sitting next to the other hosts. “Look, guys. We need to be afraid. We don’t know what this disease could do. I for one will not risk my health by playing around with this virus. After we wrap up today, I am going home. And I will not leave until the government tells me it is safe. I cannot risk my or my children's health.”
The audience clapped and roared in approval. George grunted from his recliner. He scratched his beard and his finger caught in another knot. He sat there for some time, not paying attention to the TV hosts babbling and arguing.
George tried to remember the last time he left the house. It was February. The Giants beat the Patriots in a Super Bowl. Was it the first time or the second? He rose from his stupor when he smelled something burning.
He jumped up and ran into the kitchen. Smoked poured off the griddle. George grabbed it and dumped the charred remains of his breakfast into the sink. He flipped the faucet on, reached up, and opened a window. He waved smoke into the fresh air.
Donna worked in her garden across from George’s kitchen window. She looked over a low white picket fence, and stared at George, waving in his kitchen.
“George? Is that you?”
George looked out the window in horror. He could only imagine what he looked like, with his beard and he assumed bloodshot eyes.
“George! I almost didn’t recognize you!”
George tried to form words. His mouth opened several times, but no sound came out.
“I can’t hear you! I’ll come over.”
Donna laid her gloves and spade down. She walked around the fence and into Georges's overgrown side yard.
“Looks like your yard guys missed this week. How are you, George? It’s been so long. I keep telling Lucy we should drop in and say hi. It’s been forever. Of course, I’m usually so busy. I don’t think I’ve taken a day off in… oh it has to be three years now. The firm never sleeps. Which means I never sleep..."
George stood at the kitchen window, as smoke wafts out the window. Donna prattled on, not noticing the smoke nor Georges' twitching cheek. She paused and waited. She had asked a question.
“What do you think about all this?”
“George… I know you don’t go out anymore, but… you must watch the news at least?”
“Oh, the flu. They’re worried about catching a cold?”
Donna cleared her throat. “It’s a bit more than a cold, George. The hospitals are at a breaking point. The governor is enforcing lockdowns. The firm sent us all home for who knows how long. I don’t know how I’m expected to handle court cases from my laptop.“
“Yeah I heard something about it, but it doesn’t sound so bad.”
“It is bad. Aren’t you scared?”
“Golly. People are frightened. Aren’t you worried about the state of the world? What if this is really bad? What will come of society? Things could fall apart? Do you ever think like that?” A tear rolled down her cheek and she wiped it away, embarrassed by her show of emotion.
George stared into Donna's eyes. This wasn’t the Donna he remembered. The confident prosecutor and conqueror of courtrooms. He felt a wave of deja vu wash over him. A glimmer of memory and feeling. He thought of his former self; master of the boardroom. Facilitator of mergers and acquisitions. That was another life. A time when he could leave the house.
Donna’s lips quivered. She waited for an answer.
“You know what Donna, that's a typical Tuesday in my world.”
Donna looked confused. “What do you mean?”
“Everything you said. Being scared of the future. Worrying about the world, and will society fall apart? To me, that’s a regular day for me.”
Donna tapped her foot, thinking. “So you are worried?”
George disappeared from Donna’s view.
She cried out. “George!”
The side door groaned open with some difficulty. George stepped out into the sideyard. He blinked and held his hand up to block the sun. Donna stood, mouth agape. He resembled a Neanderthal who liked sweatpants and T-shirts. His cheek twitched once more then stopped for good.
George took notice and massaged his face. “You know what Donna. I am afraid. I’m afraid all the time. From the moment I wake up to when I go to sleep, I am terrified.”
Donna’s eyes welled up. “Me too.”
George breathed in the cool fresh March air. “But not anymore.”
“We’re going to get through this,” George put a hand on her shoulder.
Donna dabbed her eyes.
“I’m going to get through this,” he said and pulled her into a hug.
“Aren’t we supposed to social distance or something?” Donna asked.
“I’m tired of living in fear. And I realized something; just now. Everyone is as scared as I am. Somehow that comforts me. It makes me feel human again.”
Donnas sighed and returned the hug. “The neighbors have been worried about you George.”
George laughed and let go.
“We thought you had gone crazy.”
“We’re all a little crazy.” George took a deep breath. “You’re garden smells great. Is that Lily of the Valley?”
“I don’t know. Lucy planted everything…”
George walked toward the front.
“Where are you going?” Donna called after him.
“I’m going to the park. Or the store. I don’t know where I’m going and it doesn’t matter. I’m just going!” George called back.
Donna called out something but George couldn’t hear her. He was already on the sidewalk. Not looking back.